Naltrexone being studied for immune-related disorders.
A drug frequently used to treat heroin and alcohol addiction also eased the pain of women suffering the symptoms of fibromyalgia, according to a Stanford study published in the April 17 journal of Pain Medicine.
Fibromyalgia remains a controversial diagnosis. As reported by Coco Ballantyine in Scientific American online, it is a “mysterious ailment whose symptoms include chronic widespread muscle pain, fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety and depression, often appears between the ages of 34 and 53 and is more common in women.”
Jarred Younger and Sean Mackey of the Stanford School of Medicine’s pain management division reported that pain and fatigue ratings for the women dropped by 30% over the 14 weeks of the study. “Patients’ reactions were really quite profound,” said Mackey. “Some people went back to work really improving their quality of life.”
Tara Campbell, one of the patients involved in the study, told the Stanford News Service that she was feeling “really, really good.” She said “my improvement was about 40 percent in the study. When you’re not capable of doing much of anything, that’s a lot... I’m much more back to normal.”
Younger said he became interested in studying naltrexone after he began questioning patients who claimed to be suffering from the disorder. “I was asking patients, ‘Does anything work for you?’ A lot of people in support groups were saying, ‘Yeah, I tried naltrexone and it works for me.’”
Naltrexone is currently used as a treatment for heroin addiction and for alcoholism. (See my post, " Drugs for Alcoholism.") Naltrexone works by locking into central nervous system receptors normally occupied by opiates or by the body’s own endorphins. Researchers like Younger, however, believe that naltrexone also dampens the activity of immune cells known as microglia that are involved in inflammatory responses.
It is not uncommon for scientists to investigate the additional effects of drugs in common use. “From a regulatory point of view,” said Canadian addiction researcher Edward Sellers in my book, The Chemical Carousel, “companies don’t try to develop [new drugs] for forty-three different things. But these drugs still carry with them many other pharmacologic actions. The history of virtually every drug that comes to market is that all these other secondary applications start to manifest themselves.”